We Are All Pan’s People
The Focus Group
The Focus Group’s third release for engaging electronics label Ghost Box occupies some impossible space between the spectral mythologizing of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and the haunted soundstage in the now empty Top of the Popsstudio. Some people will walk through this world on cloven hoofs, others in white vinyl go-go boots. It feels pretty groovy and strange, managing to generate some real excitement at the same time.
The effect is a little like coming across an obscure catalogue of library recordings that you know could never really have existed. Feedback loops and decaying echoes are spliced into intricate straggling test patterns with snippets of Easy Listening: heavy on the flute and harpsichord but with a laid back electric guitar on the side to keep the kids interested. Disembodied voices caught up in flights of poetic incantation or mumbled asides drift politely through this seamless kaleidoscopic montage of sounds and effects spread across 25 tracks but with a combined running time roughly equal to what you’d expect from a long-playing vinyl record.
There’s also something quite knowing about the clumsiness with which the pieces present themselves: rattling Moroccan percussion and tuneless clarinets are roughly combined on “Soho>St.Ives>Tangier” while the epic “The Green Station Haunt” collapses into one long disjointed series of incomplete endings, only to be followed immediately by the distorted reverberations of the actual closing track “Leaving Through”.
With a sense of boldness that only skilful pastiche can bring, We are all Pan’s People summons up a lost world where rosebay willow herb still grows on old bomb sites waiting for the developers to move in, and television sets emit spooky blue auras in peoples’ front rooms. London is swinging, youth is definitely in the air and Syd Barret has just finished reading The Wind in the Willows for about the 20th time. Intimately acquainted with this uncertain hinterland between yesterday and tomorrow, The Focus Group are also smart enough to realise that anyone can pass for modern if they still listen to Pierre Henry, Tom Dissevelt, Jacques Loussier or Dave Brubeck. Or as Peter Jones used to announce repeatedly in the 1963 film adaptation of Billy Liar, “It’s all happening !”
The graphic designer Julian House conceived the Focus Group as a package. Musically and visually, it exists in a half-remembered, prelapsarian, mid 1970s paradise of BBC schools programming, weird children’s-TV sci-fi soundtracks and lost library music. Nerds will enjoy spotting the samples – there’s Hans Keller reviewing Pink Floyd at QEH in 1967 – and the cultural references. Should the Pan’s People of the title conjure up the alluring, glam-era Top of the Pops dance troupe or the devil women of Arthur Machen’s decadent 1890 novel The Great God Pan, quoted on the inner sleeve? Currently, the Ghost Box label is an internet-only concern, but albums like this will rapidly raise its profile.
Sunday Times Culture
We are all Pan’s People is almost too perfect a Focus Group title, what with its allusions to both the dance troupe from 1970s Top of the Pops and Weird author Arthur Machen’s masterpiece, The Great God Pan. Transforming kitsch into the eldritch is the alchemical art at which the Focus Group excel, and We Are All Pan’s People puts you in mind of the now empty Top of the Pops studio being used as the site for a séance. The ghosts of an old BBC – patrician voices intoning poetry, the Radiophonic workshop, anonymous jazz-funksters, wind-blown Folkies, spaced-out Psych Rockers – are summoned and invited to cavort in an unlikely rite. The Sixties and Seventies are not so much remembered as re-dreamt. The tracks are a series of oneiric fragments, glued together by techniques of audio-adhesion that are foregrounded, never concealed. Instead of smoothly looping their samples, the Focus Group cubistically cut them into odd angles that never resolve into recognizable geometries. A miasmic reverb hangs over the album, a concretisation of the Focus Group’s great fixation: reverberation, vibrations that persist.
Ghost Box are Weird England in exile. Each release gives us another glimpse into their alternative Albion (one track here is titled, aptly, ‘Albion Festival Report’). Pan’s People is punctuated by logotones’, station idents for alt. Albion’s regional TV franchises, and television the old Dr Who, Nigel Kneale, Open University – remains central to the Ghost Box synaesthetic. Ghost Box is an audio-visual label; hearing the Focus Group or Belbury Poly without Julian House’s sumptuous sleeve designs is to be deprived of a web of associations, triggers and textual clues which build as the Ghost Box catalogue expands. In an age of download disposability, Ghost Box revive the collector in us. Don’t miss out on this one.